How we can develop “Chesed Eyes” — in ourselves, and in our children
“Will you come to us for Shabbos?” he asked, eyes wide with seven-year-old innocence.
“Yesh harbeh makom — there’s plenty of room at the table.”
A rebbe in a Bayit Vegan cheder shared this touching anecdote. Ahron, his young student, warmly invited him for Shabbos. Ahron lives in a two-bedroom walkup with his parents and 11 siblings. Yet to him, there was no question: of course there was room at the table. There’s always room for guests.
Unfortunately, the opposite attitude is becoming increasingly common nowadays.
Move over. This is MY space. Making room for you — in my home, in my life — is just too hard.
Is there anything we can do to change the tide?
EPIDEMIC OF NARCISSISM
The research is clear: since the 1980s, Western society has become increasingly self-absorbed. And that has only accelerated from the 2000s onward.
Compared to the 1950s, more kids today feel they’re an “important person” and have high expectations for themselves — to become doctors, lawyers, the top performers at their jobs — write narcissism researchers Jean Twenge, Ph.D. and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., in their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
This sounds like a good thing, but narcissism is not self-confidence: it’s an overblown and misplaced sense of confidence. It’s a belief about one’s capabilities that is not rooted in reality. Case in point: the number of people actually becoming doctors and lawyers hasn’t increased, say Drs. Twenge and Campbell, and the 60-odd percent of high schoolers who think they’ll be in the top 20 percent of performers at work can’t mathematically fit there. Twenty percent will always be 20 percent.
At the same time, research suggests that today’s kids are losing empathy for others. Since the late 1970s, the percentage of 12th graders willing to donate to charity has been steadily declining. Per Dr. Twenge, the current generation may recognize that others need help but don’t feel obligated to extend their own hand. For instance, they tend to agree with or take a neutral stance with statements like “It’s not my problem if others are in trouble and need help” and “Maybe some minority groups do get unfair treatment but that’s no business of mine.”
In 2006, one out of four college students agreed with most of the “narcissistic” statements in a standard personality test — like “If I ruled the world it would be a much better place” and “I like to be the center of attention.” And an astonishing one out of every 10 Americans over age 20 has experienced Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These men and women have developed an inflated sense of self, coupled with greed, self-indulgence, and a disregard for others.
What’s going on? Why has society around us become so self-centered and, consequently, so oblivious and apathetic when it comes to others and their needs?
The answer, I believe, lies in three societal shifts:
- Decline in social interaction, especially among children.
Riding bikes with friends, playing tag, hanging out in the front yard — these were all normal pastimes of children BPT (before phones and tablets). They spent hours each day interacting with others, learning to negotiate whose turn it was to spin the dice or sneak into Mrs. Sternbacher’s yard to retrieve the ball. Unknowingly, they were developing awareness for others and their needs, and an aptitude for caring and giving.
These days, children are increasingly spending time with themselves — and their screens. All types of kids — across all socioeconomic groups, all grade levels, and all interests (from bookworms to athletes) — are spending less time with peers.
Dr. Twenge shares alarming data detailing the drop in socialization among teens in just a 15-year time span; the get-togethers, hangouts, and DMCs of adolescence are fading away. The Pew Research Center confirms this, with recent data showing that teens spend just over an hour a day socializing — but three to four hours on screens.
And it’s not just kids. Most of us know adults who work from home, order all essentials online, and communicate with others only as much as they have to — and only via text. It’s possible to go for days — maybe longer — without any in-person interaction.
With this kind of social drought, we are surrounded by ourselves and our needs. No one else is in the picture.
- Proliferation — and normalization — of self-obsession, particularly in social media.
Social media primes us to overtly — and repeatedly — focus on ourselves:
- What did I do today?
- What do I have to say?
- What can I share that will make me look good?
Podcasts, webpages, and Instareels are riddled with messages of “Listen to ME!” It’s become common, even admirable, to share every opinion or thought that crosses your mind (or what you ate for dinner last night).
Neither arrogance nor bragging are new phenomena. What’s changed — and what’s harmful — is the normalization and encouragement of self-obsession. It’s no longer frowned upon — or brushed off with amused disdain — but practiced by wide swaths of our communities, and rewarded with hundreds of likes and follows.
This mindset has even infiltrated the clothing our kids wear. How many little humans are toddling around in onesies boasting: “I’m a genius” or “Too cool for you”? On the surface, it’s a harmless joke — but is it reflective of a deeper trend, a belief that it’s okay to push myself up, even if it puts you down?
- Endless fulfillment of our desires, thanks to unprecedented choice and affluence.
As a society, we’ve been blessed with tremendous wealth and comfort.
A friend offers you a drink. “Sure, I’d love some water,” you respond. And then the questions begin.
Do you want still water or seltzer?
Room temperature or cold?
With or without ice?
What happened to plain old water?
We can get (nearly) whatever we want with astounding specificity and speed.
With our every heart’s desire at our fingertips, how can we not focus on ourselves and our wants?
The more we feed our own desires, the greater they balloon — and the harder it becomes to think outside of ourselves.
What’s the Answer?
Hayom haras olam: Today is the birth of the world. Hashem created the world on Rosh Hashanah. The month preceding it — the days of Elul — is the “pre-creation” stage.
What was HaKadosh Baruch Hu doing, so to speak, during Elul?
The Bnei Yissaschar says He was immersed in retzono l’heitiv: His desire to spread goodness. Hashem didn’t need anything from creation; He just wanted to bestow infinite goodness on mankind. Perhaps this is why Elul is also called the Yimei Ratzon, the days of want, i.e., the desire to give.
In our preparations for the Yamim Noraim, we must seek to mirror Hashem. How? By reducing our self-obsession — and developing our own desire to “live to give.” In doing so, we become like HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Consummate Giver. This brings us closer to Him and ultimately creates eternal goodness for ourselves too.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A GIVER?
It’s not easy to “turn off” self-absorption. Humans are wired to attend to their own needs. The only way to combat this instinct is to “turn on” other-absorption: to suffuse our lives with thoughts about others.
What does Hashem expect from us? The well-known pasuk in Micha tells us to do justice and love kindness. The term used is “ahavas chesed”. Why “loving kindness”? Why doesn’t the verse state “doing kindness”? Because, answers the Chofetz Chaim, it’s not enough to do chesed. We have to love kindness; we have to search for it. We have to seek it out.
The precedent for this lies in our ancestor Avraham.
Your children have surely learned how Avraham was in distress after his bris milah at age 99 — not because of the terrible pain, but because he had no guests. Thanks to an excruciatingly hot day, planned that way by Hashem, no one dared venture out. And so Avraham was left alone to recuperate.
But Avraham could not sit back and enjoy the quiet. He was agitated. Where are all the people? Why is there no one I can give to?
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky asks: Why was it such a big deal to Avraham that he couldn’t do chesed? He wouldn’t have been bothered, say, on Tuesday, that he couldn’t make kiddush. Tuesday is not Shabbos — so there’s no opportunity for the mitzvos of Shabbos. It’s not a reason to be upset. Why then, when there was no opportunity for chesed, was Avraham upset?
Chesed is different from other mitzvos, explains Rav Kamenetsky. Chesed is the essence of a Jew. It’s integral to our souls. It’s therefore not enough to do kindness when the opportunity strikes. Hashem wants us to be bursting with chesed, to wonder at every corner, every encounter: is there someone whom I can help?
Developing Chesed Eyes
This approach is what I call “chesed eyes.”
Chesed eyes means being constantly on the lookout: who is in need, who can I help, and how can I make the lives of others better?
To put on our chesed eyes, we start by training ourselves — and our children — to look with compassion at others and discern what is causing them pain: what are they lacking? Why are they suffering? We need to internalize that their pain is our pain; their problem is our responsibility. And if Hashem presented us with the opportunity to recognize their lack, He also gave us the capacity to help them overcome it.
When a child wears their “chesed eyes,” they’ll notice another kid scuffing his shoes as he walks, looking down, dejected — and they’ll smile at him. They’ll see the new kid standing in the classroom door, lost and overwhelmed — and they’ll offer to sit next to her.
An adult with chesed eyes will come out of the grocery and immediately identify the car circling around for a space — then go over to the window and say, “I’m about to pull out; come this way.”
These are the eyes Hashem wants gracing all of our faces.
Bring it Home
On a practical level, how can we help train children — and ourselves — to adopt chesed eyes?
- Empower kids to use their own strengths.
People often associate chesed with giving tzedakah or making meals. But you don’t have to do “typical” chesed. Encourage children to look at what they’re good at and use those strengths to help others.
For example, a group of boys in Waterbury, Connecticut created MRK, which stands for “Middle (School) Responsible Kids”. Through this chesed organization, they fix bikes and help people move for free — all tasks they are able and happy to do for others.
Inspiring kids to use their strengths is what my organization, Torah Live, does through the storytelling power of video. Our latest project — a film following three 15-year-olds who develop their own chesed eyes — aims to help kids turn on their own “chesed radar.” It’s about kids taking charge and using their abilities to ignite a chesed revolution.
- Explain the power of “easy” chesed opportunities.
We underestimate the impact of an “easy” chesed: offering a seat, sending a text to boost someone’s spirits, or even just sharing a smile. These don’t take a lot of time or effort, yet they can accomplish so much.
- Make this a coordinated movement, not a burst of inspiration that dies out.
It’s not enough for each of us to sit on our couches, read this article, and think: Yeah, good idea, Rabbi. I’ll try to keep it in mind.
In a world of rampant self-absorption and self-gratification, we need to do something. We need to band together and stand up as Avraham Avinu, and radiate giving as our prime mission. That is our banner, our calling in the world. We are the Jewish people, rachmanim, gomlei chasadim: people of mercy, people who do kindnesses. That’s our spiritual DNA.
Moshiach will come in the zechus of chesed, say Chazal. So let’s bring him! Let’s choose to be a people that embraces chesed with a passion — and chases after it. Let’s create a movement for chesed, true chesed. Rally your schools and shuls and community organizations; plan meetings and events to spread the word. Start a newsletter, issue a challenge, make a difference.
And at the center of it: the kids. Empower your children — and all kids — to be ambassadors for this movement, the force and voice behind it. Support them to take the lead, to come up with their own ideas, so they can grasp the meaning of chesed and the beauty it brings to all lives.
- Teach by example.
Kids learn through what they see, not what they hear. Any message they get about chesed from shul or school or even a Torah Live film needs to match what they’re seeing at home. All the speeches and movements in the world won’t do a thing if our kids don’t see us operating with chesed eyes.
That’s why the best way to train children is to model “chesed eyes” ourselves — and make it a lasting habit.
Notice a mother limping around at shul? Text her Motzaei Shabbos to say you’ll pick up her girls along with yours from swimming — no need for her to hobble out.
Know a friend who is selling an old car? Take the extra step to connect him to your neighbor’s son who’s looking.
Drive past the overgrown lawn of the family who moved away but haven’t yet sold their house? Don’t tsk tsk. Open their contact and ask: “Can I arrange to have your lawn cut for you?”
See someone hunting through their wallet to find change, with no luck — and you have two fives and a fistful of singles in your purse? Speak up: “I’ve got it for you!”
Small actions, larger favors — whatever it takes to keep those around you thinking: People notice, and people care.
Elul. Every action we take now directly impacts our upcoming year — and our destiny as a nation.
There’s no more critical time to show Hashem that we understand our deep connection to our brothers and sisters. That, like Him, we want to bring goodness to the people around us. That we want to live to give.
Rabbi Dan Roth is the founder of Torah Live and author of “Relevance: Pirkei Avos for the Twenty First Century.” The new film “Live to Give” is launching an episode-a-week over the coming weeks at www.Torahlive.com.